"Why do kids act like that?"

The answer is always the same, “Because it serves a purpose”. Behavior is always goal-orientated. We learn that in Psych 100, but it’s easy to lose sight of when you find yourself “in the weeds” so to speak dealing with all kinds of behavior you don’t like. 

We all want the same basic things: stay alive as long as possible, be healthy instead of sick, happy instead of unhappy, successful instead of fail, to get along with others, to have freedom to do as we please, and as much control over our own destiny as possible. Ideally, everything we do would help us realize such goals. But kids often have what Rudolph Dreikurs called “mistaken” goals. They get some immediate gratification from what they do, but make achieving the goals list above less likely in the long run. Teachers sometimes do as well with students – i.e. power and control, even revenge. They shouldn’t, but often do. 

I first learned about “mistaken” goals in a grad class called “Cooperative Discipline”, based on a book by Linda Albert. Basically, instead of reacting to misbehavior with the same consequences teachers and schools so often do, you identify their mistaken goal, and base your response on that. 

Dreikurs said students usually have one or more of four “mistaken” goals when they misbehave: Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, Avoidance of Failure. He contended that they usually start with Attention. When their misbehavior gets mishandled, they’ll move to Power and Control, then Revenge. Ultimately they end up at Avoidance of Failure and shut down, and ultimately drop out. 

When I taught grad classes, it always amazed me that teachers in my classes had ever heard of Dreikurs model. But it didn’t surprise me given the way teachers are typically prepared. 
I always encourage teachers to see behavior as just the tip of the iceberg, because there is always a lot more going on beneath the surface than what you see above it. I also encourage them to see behavior as a symptom rather than as a problem. It’s a symptom of unhelpful, dysfunctional thoughts and feelings kids are generating in response to their life events, thoughts and feelings they need help with. Those thoughts and feelings are the key to their behavior - thoughts cause feelings, attitude is always the father of behavior (and their behavior will follow their emotions toward their life events) 

Their behavior often won’t change until their thoughts and the feelings that give rise to it do. When teachers don’t consider a student’s thoughts and feelings, it’s not uncommon for them to say and do things that interact with the student’s thoughts and feelings in ways that only make the behavior more likely, and worse. It’s why behavioral management often doesn’t work, and even makes matters worse. 

An overreaction is often an age regression. Kids have cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts”. Ruts make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. More often than not, what they do is something that comes automatic to them because the present reminds them of the past in some way. It’s important to keep in mind that what they think, and feel, say or do because of it is understandable given what they’ve been through. 

I always encourage teachers to be more like doctors. Doctors consider a patients history and symptoms in trying to diagnose what’s really wrong, to identify the underlying cause of symptoms before prescribing treatment. Imagine a doctor who didn’t, and just gave every patient the same treatment, and prescribed even more when it didn’t work. That’s analogous to how behavioral management is usually done – and why it doesn’t work. 

Considering “mistaken” goals is a way to begin looking beneath the surface and identifying the important causes of misbehavior – a student’s thoughts about him or herself, others, life, and what happens to them (and has in the past) that they need help with. 

You can read more about "mistaken" goals at: www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool8.html

You can read about the "Tool Time" approach for troubled and troublesome students at: